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Saturday, 4 December, 1999, 16:37 GMT
Millennium mayhem at Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat Angkor Wat is believed to be the largest religious structure in the world

By BBC Correspondent Stephen Jessel

There's one millennium party I shall not be at, although I would give much to be there.

Especially when they churn the Ocean of Milk in the minutes before the 9's all change to 0's and the 1 becomes a 2.

By then we would have had the guru-worshipping ceremony, the dancing, the drumming, the exorcism, flying lanterns taking off and yet more dancing.

And all in the most stupendous setting possible - the great temple of Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

Now that peace is finally returning to this ravishing but convalescent country it is once again possible to visit it in safety.

You would need to have made some arrangements in advance, though.

Tent City

When I was there a couple of weeks ago I asked them how many people they were expecting for the event. About 100,000 they thought, mostly Cambodians but with a fair number of foreigners.

And how many beds were available in hotels and guest houses in Siem Reap, the little town nearby? Two to three thousand they reckoned.

But there were plans (and they didn't seem much more than plans) to erect a tent city, to bring in generators, portable lavatories and so on.

Angkor Wat tower The towers look like half-open fir cones
Still, the majesty of Angkor makes it worthwhile to put up with a little discomfort. There are not many countries that feel sufficiently strongly about their nation's finest treasure to put in on their flag, but the Cambodians do.

And when you visit Angkor - which is not just the immense temple but three dozen other monuments, terraces, towers, walls and so on in the immediate area - you can understand why.

You understand why even the Khmer Rouge, despite their determination to abolish the past, left this monument to the genius of the Khmer people largely alone.

Millennium buildings

These things are entirely subjective but Angkor Wat is my nomination for building of the millennium. (Please note that the Parthenon, the pyramids in Mexico and Egypt and the rose-red city of Petra belong to other millennia.)

The Taj Mahal will have its supporters as will the Alhambra in Granada, St Peter's in Rome, sundry cathedrals in northern Europe, Venice as an ensemble, the Great Wall of China in the form we see it now and Macchu Picchu in South America.

Votes might be cast for the Sydney Opera House, various Guggenheim museums in New York and Bilbao, the Pompidou Centre in Paris - or even (who can tell?) the dome at Greenwich.

But they would all have to reckon with Angkor Wat.

Breathtaking sculptures

It is believed to be the largest religious structure in the world and built some 800 years ago. But neither its size nor its antiquity makes it so astounding an achievement.

It is approached by a causeway from which you can see its five towers - like lotus buds or in my view rather more like half-open fir cones - rising from its immense base.

This is roughly 200 metres square, and has corridors running along virtually its whole length which are lined with relief sculptures of a grace and precision to take the breath away.

It is here that you will find the depiction of the churning of the Ocean of Milk: Various deities taking part in what at first appears to be tug-of-war, but is in fact a search for a potion that will confer eternal life, a process that involves churning the sea with the help of an enormous snake.

A vastly pleasing by-product of this operation is the creation of apsaras.

These are the delicate dancing girls carved in their thousands at the Wat and the other temples at Angkor.

The carvings cover hundreds of square metres and also depict battles and scenes from Hindu mythology.

The second level is less decorated but offers surprising courtyards, more galleries and an infinity of nymphs. From there 12 vertiginous staircases lead to the top level - the centre of the universe, since Angkor Wat is a model of Mount Meru which in Hindu mythology represents the cosmos.

Tourism flourishing

The political troubles of recent years have meant that Cambodia has largely been off-limits to tourists. That, though, is changing.

The mines have been cleared in the temple areas. The airport at Siem Reap is being extended, new hotels are being built and new international air services are being introduced.

At the moment the enormous site can swallow the visitors without too much difficulty. In any case, if the official figures are to believed (which they almost certainly are not), about as many foreign tourists visit Angkor in a year as go to Disneyland Paris on a summer weekend.

The authorities are conscious of what may happen.

There are plans to cut the pollution from the cars and motorcycles that ferry visitors round the temples by introducing a fleet of electric cars, not a move much appreciated by those who earn their living from driving visitors.

Add the presence of uniformed guards at the main sites to check tickets and the magic is going, but not all of it - and I wish I was going to the party at the temple on New Year's eve.
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See also:
02 Aug 98 |  Cambodia
Cambodia on the Net

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